Cease Subsiding Superlatives, Scientific Charlatans!

Average Rating:
A bit of a rant about why we can't describe huge things as huge.

It's like this.......I've just been reading an article about a planet somebody's found waltzing round the binary star system Alpha Centauri. It's 4.4 light years away. Now, light zips along at a fairly quick rate, in fact 670,616,629 mph which definitely has the legs on our Hyundai Getz. In a year (unless it's a leap year) there are 8760 hours if I'm not mistaken. So multiplying that by 4.4 gives us the light hours and it's 38,554. So multiplying that by the light in mph speed should give us the distance in miles it's doing between there and here yes?

Well, that's 25,848,247,348,176 miles. Which would be all well and good if a bit further down the article they had not described this huge round space rock as "being in our back yard".

In the interests of fair investigation I went and measured our back yard. It falls far short of the mark at 0.01003788 miles long and in fact is zero feet from the back door. It contains a remarkable lack of huge space rocks and though there are some big trees I doubt that a binary star system is hiding behind any of them. I'm sure I'd have noticed by now.

This sort of metaphor really gets on my pip and when I achieve supreme power I'm going to make anybody putting such drivel forward suffer an adequate punishment for it. Rather like that outlined below.

There's 847 miles between Land's End and John o' Groats and so, to achieve the same distance as Land's End to Alpha Centauri, you'd have to walk to John o' Groats and back 29,574,653,716.45 times. I'd make 'em do it. I'm not a cruel man and so I'd have a Transit van following on behind full of Pot Noodles, spare boots, toilet rolls and all that sort of thing. Every time they landed up in one end or the other I'd have them briefly reminded that far from being in our back yard 25,848,247,348,176 miles is in fact a very long way away indeed before being handed a can of Red Bull and gently turned round and told to toddle off again the other way.

It's not just astronomers though. Apparently Homo Sapiens, which has been around for between 200,000 and 100,000 years is a fairly recent development.
No, it isn't. Lunchtime was very recent. Two weeks ago last Thursday was fairly recent. January 2016 was quite recent. Any point in 2015 was yonks ago, twenty years back is ages since, the Battle of Waterloo was donkey's years back and Hastings was a very long time past. Anything in the Old Testament is (literally in some cases) positively ante-diluvian. 200,000 years is far, far, far from recent. If you say a person can live for 70 years and assuming on the day that person kicks the bucket his or her replacement is born then you'd have a chain of 2857 ancestors before you'd got to today's example. Even the Queen can't trace her family tree back that far and she knows who her great to the umpteenth grandad was.

Don't even get me started about Pluto being a dwarf planet. It's 1,474 miles round. That's pretty big. The moon's not all that much bigger (2,158) and nobody's shouting "hey shorty!" at that.

C'mon. If it's big stop treating it like a golf ball, or if it's such a long way off you couldn't get to it with a great big rocket in less than a squintillion years then stop referring to it in measurements more suited to a trip down to Tesco. Back yard indeed. Bounders!

Posted by Ian Lang on May 21, 2016 12:47 AM Europe/London

Log in

Want to read the comments or add your own? Please Log in 

Up the Sharp End

  • You must enable blog
    in the Account settings to
    receive email notifications.
A view of life (it's hard) the Universe (it's quite big and mostly full of emptiness) science (it's just as hard as life but with more maths) and technology (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the perspective of a highly harassed technician, which admittedly might be skewed. They say the glass is half empty- experience tells me to check whether or not that glass is cracked and leaking, and check exactly what it's half full of. Prepare for strangeness.